A professor at boiling point

Sri_Lanka_-_Sri_Lankan_Tamils_2012My invitation to the readers of Babel and Lingua to let me know what they think has produced a steady stream of emails, most of them interesting and many heart-warming. Occasionally, however, the effect is chilling, and here’s an example.

The Babel chapter about Tamil is mostly about India, but it also touches on Sri Lanka, which has a sizeable Tamil-speaking minority. Since independence in 1948, relations between the two major ethnic and linguistic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, have been tense at best and frequently violent. While tension and violence can never be exclusively blamed on one side, Sinhalese nationalism and suppression of Tamil rights did much to ignite the powder keg into civil war – a powder keg created by the British colonial administration, I should add. Continue reading

John McWhorter: ‘When I learn something I want to share it’

John answering a question2

During the interview

Why is it important for a linguist to engage with a general audience? If languages go extinct, why is that a loss people should care about?

These are two of the questions that I asked Professor John McWhorter on Skype. We had this conversation right after John interviewed me for his Lexicon Valley podcast, which you can find here.

Living Yiddish: an insider’s observations

I recently had a fascinating correspondence with a reader who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking environment. She has allowed me to publish her emails, but prefers to remain anonymous. As per her request, I have given the text a – very light – edit.

DerYidMuch as I enjoyed your book Lingo, I was surprised to read your description of Yiddish today. In your book you describe Yiddish speakers as mostly older survivors while the next generation speak it at best as a second language. It is not surprising therefore that you are pessimistic as to its future.

But this situation could not be further from the truth. Yiddish in places like Brooklyn, London, Montreal, Antwerp and Israel is not just spoken, but it is often as a primary mother tongue. In villages like Kiryat Joel and New Square in upstate New York Yiddish is the official language of everything from commerce, education, press etc. Continue reading

Podcast: Africa’s relaxed multilingualism

ABChapter 12 of Babel, which is about Swahili, discusses how Africans think nothing of mastering several languages. Many people speak at least three: their mother tongue, their region’s or country’s lingua franca and the official language of administration and education, usually French, English, Portuguese or Arabic. The chapter has been particularly well received by many readers.

The podcast America the Bilingual has dedicated its latest episode to the subject. It greatly enriches my own story by interviewing several people from East and West Africa about the how, what and why of their multilingualism. The show is 12 minutes long, and I highly recommend it. Click on the round red-and-white play button below and enjoy!

A cosmonought from Awestria

You know that game where you keep translating a sentence back and forth between two languages, until the original statement is only a vage memory? It also works with transcription between alphabets. I just came across a real-life example.

In 1991, Franz Viehböck was Austria’s first Raumfahrer (astronaut or, in this case, cosmonaut). A correct name tag was stuck on his clothing, along with a Cyrillic version: Фибёк. That’s not a bad approximation of the original pronunciation,
/ˈfiːbœk/, and probably based on official rules for German-to-Russian transcription.

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Name tag, on display at the House of Austrian History in Vienna.

After his flight, Viehböck got an official certificate, or rather two: one in Russian, one in English. But while the former once again spells his name as фибёк, the latter displays an entirely new version of his name: Feeberk. Continue reading

An m hidden in plain sight

M.jpgYou know how things can stare you in the face and you still somehow manage to overlook them? As in that famous video where a big guy in a gorilla outfit escapes most viewers’ attention?

It’s happened to me in my book Babel, in chapter 8. The story is about what it actually means when we say that ‘Russian, like English and Latin, belongs to the Indo-European family’. How does this show in the actual language? The chapter includes a little table of verbal endings, including the first person singular, which is a dead give-away of Russian being Indo-European: Latin has -o or -m, Russian has -u or -m (the latter now rare, but common in the Slavic family). Germanic languages no longer have those particular endings, though Old German still had -o.

But the thing is: Germanic languages do still have that ending. Or rather, one does, in one verb. That may sound like a tiny remnant, but it’s some obscure word in some far-flung Faroese island dialect. Quite the contrary, I;m referring to the most common verb in the largest Germanic language, as big a verbal gorilla as one could wish for: it’s English’s to be. First person singular, present tense: am, more often than not reduced to its erstwhile ending, m.

In Proto-Indo-European the form was esmi, which begat Proto-Germanic izm(i), which begat Old English eom, which begat am. So there: it’s a direct cognate of the Latin and Russian words for ‘am’, which are sum and (the now archaic) jesm’.

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Thanks to John McWhorter for pointing out the origin of am’s m-ending in his latest Lexicon Valley podcast.

Linguistics in Dutch society

MarcvOLinguist Marc van Oostendorp is a professor of Dutch language and academic communication at Nijmegen, as well as a prolific writer pouring out high-quality popular books, columns, daily blog posts, frequent videos and more. He has just published a brief paper about linguistic outreach and popularisation in the Netherlands. With his permission, I am reproducing here substantial chunks of it for those of you who are interested in comparing the Dutch situation with that in your own country. Word of warning: unlike Marc’s popular writing, which is playful and lively, this academic piece is factual and dry, so don’t expect a juicy blog post. If you can’t get enough of it nonetheless, the full three-page text is available for download. Continue reading

Around the world in 16 publishers (so far)

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New translation contracts keep coming in! This week, early June 2019, I learnt about the sixteenth separate edition, in the thirteenth language: Romanian. Niculescu of Bucharest have acquired the rights.

Wow. Thanks to Profile Books and Andrew Nurnberg Associates, who make such a great job of selling the translation rights, I can now feel like a one-man multinational. Here’s an updated map of the Babel campaign:

wereldkaart - met BABEL - groot Europa

Learn one language, get one free

My Dutch-language book Taaltoerisme (2012) included a chapter about Limburgish, the regional language that ‘I was fed with the porridge spoon’, as the Dutch idiom goes – my mother tongue, that is to say. For the English-language edition of the book, titled Lingo (2014), Katy McMillan-van Overzee was kind enough to translate and radically localise it to reflect her own Scots-language Edinburgh childhood. In the end, however, the publisher and I settled on a different kind of chapter for Scots. Reading this interview with the Scots Scriever, Michael Dempster, and a Twitter exchange with Peter Blake led to the idea of publishing it here for the first time.

When I was growing up in central Edinburgh in the 1960s, the people on the TV spoke a different language from the one we spoke at home. But I still understood them. When I went to school I discovered that the language I was expected to speak was not the ‘home-grown’ variety but more akin to the BBC English of Listen with Mother. I don’t remember that being a problem. I just went with the flow.

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Picardy Place roundabout, Edinburgh, late 1960s (source)

But how? How did I learn ‘English’ when I had communicated in Scots all my young life – with my friends, the local shopkeepers, my family … ? I have absolutely no idea. When I had to do it, I just did. Not perfectly of course, but certainly without inhibition. So did my sister, and all the other kids in the neighbourhood. Continue reading

Catalan or Spanish: Deciding which language to speak in Barcelona

Alex Rawlings is a Barcelona-based polyglot who recently exited from Britain. If you want to peep into the mind and daily life of a person speaking a dozen or so languages, follow his blog. Here’s a repost of his latest story.

Alex Rawlings

A few days before my big move to Barcelona, I found myself talking to my now ex-colleague, Jesús. It was late at night, and we were on the Gatwick Express, heading into Victoria on our way back from the Polyglot Conference in Slovenia. Jesús is from Valencia, and so he took a particular interest in my decision to move to Spain. He asked me if I already had any friends in Barcelona.

“Yes,” I said, quickly. “Lots of friends. So many people, from all over the world. I know all of them.” There was a pause, which I interrupted to re-emphasise: “I have lots of friends.”

“OK,” Jesús replied, cautiously. “Just that I know you know lots of people, but just in case you need anything, my sister’s been living in Barcelona for years now, and she lives very close to where you’re going to be, so if you…

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